I don’t know if it happens to you but every so often I go through these fairly extended phases when I’m listening to not much else than one band or one musician almost all the time. When I first discovered The National, the Brooklyn band that is hitting the headlines right now, I became a serial listener of their albums, all five of them, which were in heavy rotation on my iPod for more than a month. Through the years I’ve had that kind of infatuation with many a band. There was a Rolling Stones phase; a (late-blooming) Morrissey phase; a (very prolonged) Radiohead phase, which roughly, but not accidentally, coincided with a very prolonged low period in my personal life; a fairly long Phish phase, which quite fittingly overlapped with a very happy period in my aforementioned personal life; and, of course I’ve mentioned this before, a hugely extended Grateful Dead period.
Sometime in 1999, I discovered the Widespread Panic. Accidentally, really, while listening to a very patchy, dial-up modem-delivered internet radio station. I still remember the song. It was called Diner and it was from the band’s live double album called Light Fuse, Get Away. It was a 14-minute song that took nearly double that time to finish listening to because of the intermittent buffering and the excruciatingly low speeds that we had to endure online those days. But something about that song – the lyrics about a girl working in a diner; the lead guitarist’s penchant for wailing, wah-wah laced melodies; the raspy, anguish-laden lead vocals; the two percussionists (okay, one was a drummer as well); the hefty bass lines; and the incredible keyboard tapestry in the background – made me sit up and do some research.
I discovered that Widespread Panic were a six-member American band from Athens, Georgia, and that they toured like crazy (they’ve already logged more than 50 gigs this year and this year’s a lean year), had released just a few studio albums (in 1999, they had just six; since then they’ve added only five more) despite being around since 1982, and had garnered a hardcore band of ultra-loyal fans. These facts and the song Diner (never mind its crappy dial-up modem delivery) made me go to Amazon and order not only Light Fire, Get Away but also Space Wrangler, Ain’t Life Grand, the eponymous Widespread Panic, Everyday, Bombs & Butterflies and ’Til the Medicine Takes. In other words, I got nearly everything that the band had released till then.
I got deep into the band’s music, listening to only them for an obsessively long time. The maverick guitarist with his prodigious use of the volume pedal was Michael Houser. The raspy vocalist was John Bell. Todd Nance and Domingo “Sonny” Ortiz played the drums and percussion, John Hermann was on keyboards and Dave Schools delivered the thumping, hefty bass. I became a fan. These were good southern lads making robust, improv-laden southern rock but a kind that I hadn’t heard before. Widespread Panic had a unique sound, a rock carpet that the six created, melodious and funky at the same time.
I progressed to getting live concerts off the treasure trove known as the Internet Archive, where you can literally get thousands of audience recordings as well as straight-from-the-soundboard recordings of gigs of hundreds of bands. And watched a video (yes, Michael Houser always played the guitar sitting down; and hefty does not only define Schools’ basslines – he is a big man too).
I picked up what I could of Panic. Discovered Everyday Companion, a fan-generated database of all their shows, setlists and lyrics; I bought a DVD of Live At Oak Mountain (August 12, 2000) on which the song Imitation Leather Shoes made its way semi-permanently into my mind, and by 2002 I’d found two more live albums – Another Joyous Occasion and Live in the Classic City (a three-night run in their home town of Athens). I had become a Spreadhead (a diehard fan of the band).
Then Houser, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, died at 40. My torrid affair with Panic threatened to end. It wasn’t as if the band broke up. They didn’t and kept touring like maniacs. Only the guitarists they brought to play were like Houser’s pale shadow. Frankly, Houser’s replacement, George McConnell, really didn’t do it for me. The two albums, Ball (2003) and Earth to America (2006), on which McConnell played lead guitar, left me quite cold. That was it, I thought: the end of my dalliance with Panic.
How wrong I was. In late 2006, I learnt that McConnell was out and a new guitarist, Jimmy Herring, would replace him. My old affair got rekindled. Herring, if you haven’t heard him, is a living legend of a guitarist. Not only has he played with the Allman Brothers Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz Is Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends, and The Dead (the Garcia-less version of the Grateful Dead) but he is a guitarist that I consider to be one of modern rock’s best. Panic put out two albums with Herring on board – Free Somehow (2008) and Dirty Side Down (2010). I’ve heard both and the heat is back in my relationship with the band. Widespread Panic is touring like crazy again. And if a 31 July concert (at Charlotte in North Carolina) that I just downloaded is any indication, they sound even better than before.